Tuesday, December 14, 2010


After the sometimes-grind of riding on rough sandy tracks in Pagan, on a rackety bicycle with an uncomfortable seat, I am finding my bicycling here in Chiang Mai an easy glide. (Don’t get me wrong: I loved riding around in that pastoral landscape dotted with enormous stone chedis and ruins from another time, but the cycling itself was sometimes onerous and uncomfortable.) Here I’m again on a rented one-speed, true, and the seat can’t be raised quite high enough, but still, paved roads and a relatively healthy bicycle make riding the streets feel effortless.

And so it is with many things, right? Hot and cold running water we take for granted until we return from a trip where we were without, and then they feel like a luxury. And in the emotional realm too, we can easily forget and take for granted the love and kindness, and the pleasurable familiarity and acceptance of our friends. The return after a trip out among strangers is the time when we are reminded how much we rely on and appreciate long friendships and family.

But I digress. I wanted to talk about the pleasures of these last days. They include a bicycle ride out the still-beautiful Chiang Mai-Lamphun road. It’s busy with traffic, and very narrow. It can’t be widened, for on either side, like a guard of honour, stand tall tall teak trees. They’re spectacular survivors of an era when most of northern Thailand was covered with forest. Now they mark an old route to the small charming town of Lamphun. People in a hurry take the new big highway farther east, so that eventually, once I’d crossed or passed under three ring roads, the traffic was much lighter: I could raise my eyes from the road to look around, and I could have the luxury of taking off my uncomfortable helmet and feeling the breeze in my hair.

Pedalling a one speed along a flat road, round and round, is kind of mindless, like any repetitive motion (plain knitting and crochet come to mind). But when there’s a pleasant little breeze, and fields of rice stubble, and small houses with cascading pink bougainvillea, and banana trees and papaya trees with green fruit hanging, and gardens with rows of tender greens against the dark soil, and children playing and puppies ambling and small streams and little shops selling simple rice and curry or fried noodles or grilled pork on a stick, then the repetitive motion happens without my thinking about it, for my eyes and imagination are engaged elsewhere.

I reached an intersection about twenty kilometers from Chiang Mai. I was more than halfway to Lamphun, at the edge of a town famous for its basketware called Saraphi. It was time to start looping back towards home, so I turned right to head west toward the river. Another ten K or so, after several small sleepy villages, brought me to a bridge across the Ping River, and from there I headed back north. Now the huge blue bulk of Doi Sutep, the mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai, loomed before me. The day was misty and overcast, so it looked like a mirage, a dream-mountain.

The small road I was on followed the river, bending and winding with it, pausing occasionally for a small cross road and bridge to the other side. The river was green and calm, glowing with reflected light from the bright-overcast sky, sometimes rippling quietly. There was little traffic, little noise of any kind apart from birdsong. I lost all sense of time...

But all good things come to an end, and so eventually I reached the busy-ness of the city. It was time to put my helmet back on and focus on navigating the traffic.

There WAS a bonus to getting back to Chiang Mai. I had begun to dream of lunch somewhere along the way. As the morning wore on my dreams became focussed on the Issaan food at a small place called Toy off Loi Kroh Road. What a great end to a long ride, that meal of perfectly balanced som tam (shredded green papaya pounded with dried shrimp, chiles, garlic, etc and dressed with fish sauce, lime juice, a hit of sugar...), spectacular grilled chicken (guy yang), and sticky rice.

And it was just noon. I still had the rest of the day to look forward to...

POSTSCRIPT: I’m just about to post this, as I sit in the Chiang Mai airport early in the morning, checked in and waiting to fly away to Toronto via Bangkok and Hong Kong. I have a sweater and my wool shawl (they go with me to Burma to keep me wrapped and warm in the chill of the air con busses); there are socks in my handcarry that I can put on in Hong Kong. All of which is to say that the climate change from Chiang Mai to Toronto at this time of year is always a shocker and a little tricky to navigate. Good-bye tee-shirts and casual bicycling around in sandals, and good-bye bowls of broth and rice noodles for breakfast at open-air stalls, at least for the next month. There are lovely compensations though! I am SO looking forward to time with Dom and Tashi, those wonderful guys, and with good friends, in the coming days and weeks. I hope you’re anticipating some holiday time with those you love.

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